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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
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High Court Rules Against Seven Aphorisms Display

(CN) - A city in Utah can block followers of the Summum faith from displaying their "Seven Aphorisms" monument in a public park, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday. The justices said city park displays, whether donated by the government or private parties, constitute government speech that's not restricted by the Free Speech Clause.

The high court overturned a 10th Circuit ruling requiring Pleasant Grove City to erect a monument of Summum's tenets, which include psychokinesis, correspondence, vibration, opposition, rhythm, gender, and cause and effect.

Believers of the Salt Lake City-based religion claimed their free-speech rights were violated when the city denied their request to display the Seven Aphorisms in Pioneer Park, though the park contains at least 11 permanent, privately donated displays, including a Ten Commandments monument.

According to Summum doctrine, Moses originally received the aphorisms from God on Mt. Sinai, but he thought the Israelites weren't ready for them, so he destroyed the tablets and returned with the Ten Commandments.

At issue was whether the decision to allow certain monuments and not others meant city officials were engaging in their own expressive conduct or providing a forum for private speech.

The high court concluded that park monuments are a form of government speech, and government entities have the right to speak for themselves and to select the views they wants to express.

"The city has selected those monuments that it wants to display for the purpose of presenting the image of the city that it wishes to project to all who frequent the park," Justice Alito wrote in the majority opinion.

Just as property owners can restrict messages placed on their land, the government has the final say over what type of monuments can be placed in a public park. The court said it doesn't matter who donated the monument, because the message will be tied to the property owner.

The court acknowledged that Summum followers have a "legitimate concern that the government speech doctrine not be used as a subterfuge for favoring certain private speakers over others based on viewpoint."

But Alito rejected Summum's proposed solution of forcing government entities to publicly embrace the messages of every donated monument.

"This argument fundamentally misunderstands the way monuments convey meaning," Alito added. "The meaning conveyed by a monument is generally not a simple one like 'Beef.' It's 'What's for Dinner.'"

Summun also claimed that monument installation is akin to making a speech or holding a demonstration in a public park, and should not be filtered by the government's viewpoints.

The difference between the two, Alito noted, is that public parks can only hold so many permanent monuments, while speakers and rallies come and go.

Justices Stevens, Scalia, Breyer and Souter filed separate concurring opinions.

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